THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE was/is sloughed off by critics as a variation on The Dirty Dozen, when, fictional liberties aside, it tells the story of a real WW2 badass outfit, the “1st Special Service Force”, a joint US-Canadian commando unit who earned a fierce rep in Italy and France. Volunteers all, the crack Canadians and rowdy Americans tussle, train and bond, raise eyebrows with officers, pull off some cheeky raids and ultimately stage an improbably daring assault on a cliff-top Nazi strong-point. *
While not a smash hit like ‘Dozen‘, it performed well enough in 1968 to gross $8,000,000, 26th place for the year (batting #4 in England). It was a comeback of sorts for mixed-quality director Andrew V. McLaglen (he’d just tanked big with The Way West) and gave a boost to stars William Holden and Cliff Robertson, who’d both been flailing: Holden’s next was his redemption-in-spades The Wild Bunch and Robertson followed by winning an Oscar for Charly. Lacking Holden’s charm and Robertson’s polish, third-billed Vince Edwards (with not a lot to do but glower, his standard thing) could not likewise ignite a film career after his Ben Casey series ended.
A colorful supporting cast backs the leads, with broad but enjoyable turns from Claude Akins, Jack Watson and Jeremy Slate, as well as the always dependable Andrew Prine and Richard Jaeckel. Cameos added dashes from Dana Andrews, Carroll O’ Connor and Michael Rennie.
With McLintock! and Shenandoah, the rough’n tumble actioner ranks as one of McLaglen’s better pictures, with a couple of rowdy brawls staged as the polyglot troops make friends the old-fashioned way—by loosening teeth (Hal Needham was stunt director) and the final battle for the mountaintop is appropriately wild and bloody: the pyro men, squib riggers and sound effects crew earning their pay.
Best scene in the movie is the introduction of the Canadian contingent, marching in smartly to bagpipes skirling “Scotland the Brave” while the quizzical Americans (who’ve been pummeling each other) gape. Jack Watson’s prideful swagger in this scene is a Man-classic.
Fittingly, the movie bucks out of the chute with a rousing march composed by Alex North. He took part of a theme he’d prepared for the TV series The Rat Patrol, rejected in favor of the likewise exciting opener composed by Dominic Frontiere, and fused it into place for this glory story.
Good production values accent William H. Clothier’s fine cinematography in locations in Utah (Mt.Jordan serving as ‘Monte le Difensa’) and in the town of Santa Elia Fiume Rapido in Italy.
With Bill Fletcher, Richard Dawson, Tom Troupe, Luke Askew, John-Paul Vignon, Harry Carey Jr., Gretchen Wyler, Patric Knowles, James Craig, Norman Alden, Don Megowan, Paul Hornung, Gene Fullmer, Karl Otto Alberty and Wilhelm Von Homburg (now there’s a wild-man). 130 minutes.
* Always appreciative of raw nerve, Winston Churchill called Robert T. Frederick, the commander played by Holden, “the greatest fighting general of all time”, adding “if we had a dozen more like him we would have smashed Hitler in 1942.” I don’t know about that, but Frederick was without doubt a bearcat for nerve, earning eight Purple Hearts. The amazing assault on Monte le Difensa re-enacted in the film is but a hint of the real deal: the 1000-foot cliff was scaled in freezing rain, in the dark.
The biggest fiction in the script is having the Americans portrayed as service misfits (taking a cue from The Secret Invasion as well as The Dirty Dozen): they were tough boys but not felonious. Dramatic license.
Apart from the war crime that was The Green Berets, a skittish Hollywood dealt with Vietnam and the military through the safety valve of WW2, and the bloody year of 1968 (kicked off by the Tet Offensive) volunteered—alongside the Wayne opus— Anzio (wretched), Counterpoint (pointless), Hell In The Pacific (disappointing), In Enemy Country (Universal factory churn), Where Eagles Dare (entertaining escapist nonsense) and the insipid duo The Private Navy Of Sgt. O’Farrell and The Secret War Of Harry Frigg.
First seeing this, with a couple of pals, at age 13, we thought it was really cool. A swell cast, plenty of action, fun cusswords and enough touch of sentiment to fire boyish imaginations already full of jingo-juice after years of Combat and a thousand other shootemups. War—make that ‘movie war’— is made to look tough, but exciting, and the ethos of team spirit is the one that comes through with the least wear & tear. Now, longhair, get on that plane for Vietnam! Five decades (and a little reading) later it seems old-fashioned, simplistic and often silly, with the actors delivering okay performances, wrestling with a tired script as much as with the Germans. I still like it, and that march opener can still kick your keister off the couch—at least as far as the refrigerator.